Return to the Source #1 – The first Edition

This is the transcription of the first edition of Return to the Source, my new podcast on excellent writing about Africa. You can of course also listen to it, or subscribe to it in your podcast app of choice!

Hello and welcome to the first edition of the “Return to the Source” podcast. My name is Peter Dörrie, I’m a freelance journalist focused on security and resource politics on the African continent and I will host this show on a weekly basis.
There is a ton of excellent writing about Africa, but too often, it drowns in a sea of mainstream mediocracy. The goal of this podcast will be to highlight outstanding pieces of analysis, interesting op-eds, documentaries and important historical writings about politics, society and culture across Africa. Each show will feature and discuss two to three pieces, give you the gist of them, as well as discuss their context and provide additional information or another perspective, where I think it is needed.

So let’s get started! This week I’ll be covering three excellent pieces about the looming commodity debt crisis in Africa, the recent elections in Ethiopia and Denis Sassou-Nguesso’s attempts to change the constitution in Congo-Brazzaville.
I’ll start of with an interesting piece published by Quartz titled “It’s time to treat commodity-backed loans to African countries the same way we treat equity”. The author, Grieve Chelwa – I should apologize in advance for probably butchering every last name from now on – is an economics PhD candidate at the University of Cape Town.

In this piece he makes the interesting observation that some African countries are facing a new debt crisis, largely because of their reliance on commodity backed loans.

“The writing off of debt under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) and Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative (MDRI) initiatives in the last decade,” Chelwa writes, “which improved the financial standing of most countries, has ironically led to an accumulation of new debt, this time from private creditors. […] By 2013, the cumulative total of sovereign bonds issued on the continent had grown to at least $10 billion. [And] much of the dollar denominated credit to African governments is implicitly backed by commodities, a straight forward consequence of the continent’s reliance on primary commodity exports.”

Unfortunately for Africa’s resource rich governments, commodity prices and especially the oil price have slumped in recent months. Chad, Zambia and other countries which had based their repayment schedules on more optimistic price forecasts are now forced to seek rescheduling of debts. If the lenders are uncooperative, Chelwa notes, this might lead to severe social spending cuts. He cites a study that finds that “the share of the national budget allocated to education and health can decline by as much as one-third in response to an increase in the debt burden.”

But Chelwa also has a solution up his sleeve: “One option,” he writes, “would be to structure the contracts so that they are more like equity.” In that case, lenders would share the risk of depressed commodity prices because the principal of a loan would be adjusted accordingly. In return, investors would also receive a higher payout in case prices rise.

Chelwa hopes that the increased risk would let lenders pick their investments more carefully and force them to monitor the behaviour of the government. And social spending would be under a lesser threat of budgetary cuts.

I think that not only the looming African debt crisis Chelwa describes, but also the example of Greece are perfect examples for the need of greater risk sharing in the case of government debt. Private lenders currently have little to fear, because states essentially can’t go bankrupt – in the worst case the IMF steps in and the population has to carry the weight of the budgetary spending cuts that come as a condition for receiving international bailouts.

Another option I would add to Chelwa’s suggestion, though, is that African countries themselves take measures to better manage their commodity incomes. In my opinion, too much is currently used for consumption and purposes like backing foreign loans. Instead, governments should commit to use a sizeable share of their commodity revenue to invest themselves, ideally in their domestic economy. That would certainly delay some of the benefits of commodity incomes, after all you could only spend money you have already made, in contrast to loans which are taken against expected future production. But this would be a much more sustainable way to go about it.

If you are interested in this kind of discussion, be sure to read the article in its entirety. The author has included a ton of interesting links and – as per usual for Quartz – there are some interesting graphics. Grieve Chelwa also has an interesting looking twitter feed. You can find him at @gchelwa, that is g c h e l w a.

So let’s go to the second piece for this week. This one is by one of my favourite authors on African Affairs, South African journalist Simon Allison. Simon is the Daily Maverick’s Africa correspondent and his piece is titled “As Ethiopia votes, human rights are not the real story.”

This is more of an opinion piece in my mind, but Simon makes some good points which will be a bit controversial. The article was published before the results of Ethiopia’s parliamentary election were in, but he rightly predicted the sweeping victory of the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front: it has won all of the 442 seats that have been declared so far and looks set to win most of the 105 which will be counted until the final results are announced on June 22.

If the EPRDF will beat its 2010 margin of victory of astonishing 99.6 per cent is unclear, but irrelevant – Ethiopia will remain a de facto one party state.
Ethiopia’s regime has a less than stellar human rights track record and its overwhelming electoral victory is largely based on intimidation and oppression of the opposition. But, and this is Simon Allison’s main point, this is not the story we should focus on. He chastises NGO’s like the Freedom house for quote “missing the point”, when they criticize the Ethiopian government.

“No matter what their political dispensation,” Allison writes, “there are few governments in Africa with a shining human rights record, and Ethiopia is certainly not amongst them. However, there are even fewer who are delivering widespread and sustainable development to their people – and in this category, Ethiopia leads the pack. This is the real story.”

He goes on to applaud the Ethiopian government for its good use of aid money, the economic growth and reduction of poverty it has fostered in recent years. And he points out that this development is build on the foundation of a unique model, an ideology of development that has for a change not be derived from quote “the standard western approach [that] has usually failed to deliver.”

And I agree, this is the most fascinating and interesting aspect of Ethiopia’s younger history. After the civil war, the country’s leadership under the late Meles Zenawi developed a self confident vision in a way that few other African countries have managed. Ethiopia has chosen the quote “other option”, its own model for development and has fared well with it. Other African countries and the international community should definitely take note.

But I disagree with Simon when it comes to the other part of his argument that we should not focus on the faults of the system. First of all, I doubt that any self-respecting NGO would not at least mention Ethiopia’s successes when criticizing the government for human rights abuses. And indeed, the Freedom House op-ed that Allison cites so disapprovingly notes many of the same success stories that Allison himself does.

But more importantly, I think that the “Ethiopian model”, let’s call it that, of an autocratic government focused on delivering economic growth and fighting poverty while securing the political status quo can still be perfected. Allison rightly notes that democracy is not automatically followed by prosperity. But an autocracy or benevolent dictatorship is also no guarantee for success. Why not make the third option, broad poverty reduction and simultaneous respect for basic human rights and a participatory government the “African model”?

Nonetheless, Allison’s essay is an interesting read and it makes some important points. You should definitely check it out, just as his other stuff. You can also find him on Twitter at @simonallison. The links to all the articles and the authors will of course also be in the show notes, which you can find in the app that you are using to listen to this podcast, or on the website return to the source dot co.

Now, let’s turn to the last article I want to highlight this week. Like in the case of Simon Allison, I’ve known the author of this one for some time, it’s the great Kamissa Camara. In her day job she is the senior programme officer for west and central Africa at the U.S. organization National Endowment for Democracy, but she regularly publishes articles in her own capacity.

This one was commissioned by the Good Governance Africa initiative and I should note that I have myself an upcoming article with them, so stay tuned for that. But Kamissa’s piece is called “Kaka Nguesso”, lingala for “Nguesso one more time,” as she explains later in the article.

I’ve chosen the article primarily because I find it to be an excellent and timely companion to current events in Burundi. I don’t want to imply that Burundi and Congo-Brazzaville have a lot in common, but the basic issue in both countries is the same: the strong man in power wants to stay in power and is or may be happy to game the constitution to reach his goal.

Changing the constitution to allow additional terms is all the rage among Africa’s self-assumed presidents for life at the moment, but the case of Nguesso is especially interesting for a few reasons, as Kamissa points out.

First of all, there is the usual two term limit and also an age limit of 70 for presidential candidates in the 2002 constitution. Nguesso, says Kamara, would be ineligible on both counts.

But the constitution also has article 185, which quote “prohibits revising the restrictions on presidential terms. The only way to remove the term limits is to scrap the constitution entirely.” end quote.

This would be a much more substantial and surely more divisive project than what other presidents have attempted, more or less successfully, in either changing individual articles or just exploiting apparent loopholes in their constitutions. And it will require Nguesso to take a clear stand on the question rather soon, because presidential elections are scheduled for July 2016. Of course he could choose to follow in the footsteps of Joseph Kabila of neighbouring Congo-Kinshasa and play for time, trying to find reasons to postpone the elections and thereby remain in power without a clear mandate.

This is an excellent article on a country that receives little attention in the media normally, so be sure to check it out. If only to be prepared when something like in Burundi goes down.

That’s it for this week’s “Return to the Source”. If you liked what you heard, please share this podcast with your colleagues and friends.

As I’ve mentioned you can find the shownotes with the links to all the pieces I’ve covered in your podcast app of choice, or on the website: return to the source dot co. You can find me on Twitter at @peterdoerrie, that is spelled p e t e r d o e r r i e and you can send me suggestions and feedback there or via email to peter.doerrie@gmail.com.

I hope you tune in next week as well, when I return with a new collection of outstanding writing about Africa. Thanks and Goodbye.